By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Early on Sunday, November 20, 1988, the E.R. doors crashed open at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. A woman had been sexually assaulted and shot, and the bullet that tore through her chest had collapsed her lung and made it nearly impossible to breathe. As workers rushed the blood-drenched victim, Enietra Margette, to surgery, she could hear scattered bits of conversation between two relatives who had raced to her side at the hospital, her aunt and uncle.
Gasping for breath, she was surprised to see Superman himself peering down at her. Superman — a doctor who looks like the late superhero actor George Reeves — leaned close to inform Margette that he had to place a tube in her chest. “I asked him if I was going to die. He said, ‘I don’t know.’”
That bloody night almost 21 years ago is pivotal in helping to solve one of the greatest murder mysteries ever to face Los Angeles police: that of the Grim Sleeper serial killer. Margette, his only known survivor, is Exhibit 1. Or perhaps that honor goes to the smashed bullet dug from her torso — a .25-caliber hunk of metal partially flattened after striking her chest bone, and now a crucial piece of evidence in LAPD’s hunt for the killer.
For five days, Dr. Superman — she can no longer recall the name of her savior at the hospital where she stayed for three weeks — monitored Margette’s dicey condition before extracting the bullet. It needed to “settle,” she says today, rubbing the bullet’s old entry spot, now a small white blemish. The doctor dropped it in a metal container and sent it to the LAPD.
The bullet sitting on a shelf in the city’s vast evidence room would prove to be an explosive link in a chain of DNA and ballistics evidence left at crime scenes by the longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi. Yet Margette had no idea she had escaped a madman, that she was the only living victim to have seen him up close or sat inside his car.
L.A.’s elusive Grim Sleeper has murdered with impunity for 23 years. Margette (who requested a fictitious last name be used for this story), has spoken exclusively to L.A. Weekly in recent weeks about many details of her strange journey, which began with a rape and shooting that at the time seemed tragically commonplace, occurring at a desperate point in U.S. urban history, filled with PCP rages and crack wars.
When Margette was attacked that night, Los Angeles’ murder rate — and that of most big cities — had soared to an all-time high. In the 1980s alone, more than 50 black women, mostly prostitutes and drug addicts, were found shot, strangled or stabbed, their bodies left in Dumpsters and alleyways in South Los Angeles.
Margette shrugged off the attack on her as a case of mistaken identity, believing the thin, neat, polite and well-groomed African-American guy who shot her must have thought she was someone he was targeting, somebody he hated.
Taking the Weekly on a short tour through residential streets of South L.A., trying to retrace her steps before and after the shooting, she remembers how her weeks of slow recovery from her chest wound marked “the first time I was ever skinny.” Wearing a pair of black, pointy-rimmed glasses, she laughs loudly at her quip. The buxom mother of three remembers spending far too much time trying to lose weight. Her former husband badgered her about gaining pounds after two of her kids were born. But she’s comfortable in her own skin these days, waltzing into a South L.A. restaurant in tight black jeans, and more than filling out a colorful shirt swirled in pink, black and white. Men glance appreciatively at Margette, a churchgoing toughie who, over lunch, declares that she likes to eat and doesn’t like wasting food — then lectures this reporter for leaving a half-eaten meal.
South L.A. has been her home for all of her five decades. There’s not a street, alleyway or intersection that Margette doesn’t know. She doesn’t mind handing out a little grief, playing back-seat driver when the Weekly accidentally makes a wrong turn after she has given explicit directions, trying to retrace her steps on the night she escaped from the Grim Sleeper.
As police later determined, the bullet dug from her body in 1988 carries the signature scratches and other ballistics marks matching a bullet that, on a warm August evening three years earlier, killed cocktail waitress Debra Jackson. Before Margette was shot, in fact, police had collected bullets from eight murder scenes, all with the same ballistics markings, pointing to the inescapable fact that a serial killer was at work.
Yet until 2006, Margette was unaware of her role in this dark drama. Police kept the existence of the serial killer a secret from the public, and from her — and missed opportunities to use sole eyewitness Margette at police lineups of local thugs and possible suspects.